The gender benders

A recent study gives disturbing revelations about the impact that everyday-use chemicals may have on the human sperm count and even induce sex change

By Sumita Dasgupta
Published: Friday 15 September 1995

-- A REPORT presented in mid-July by the Institute for Environment and Health (mii), Leicester, United Kingdom, has hit hard especially those living in the northern hemisphere. It makes a startling statement that 60,000 human-made chemicals are likely to be causing not only impotency among men and wildlife, but might actually lead to complete sex change. According to Lewis Smith, who is the director of the institute, sperm quality and sperm counts of males in the West have been deteriorating apparently due to harmless chemicals which are used as ingredients in commonly used substances like detergents, plastic wrappers and food additives.

Alarm bells were first sounded 3 years ago, when the Denmark-based reproductive biologist Niels Skakkebaek published a sensational article in the medical journal, Lancet,'claiming that environmental toxins were a serious threat to human reproductive systems. He looked at 61 sperm count studies published between 1938 and 1966, and noted that the mean sperm concentration had declined from 113 million per millilitre in 1940 to 66 million per millilitre in 1990. However, Skakkebaek concluded, "We certainly do not claim that there has been a decline in sperm count during the second half of the study period ... but there is a big difference between the first part and the last," he concluded.

Scientists working with the IEH are emphatic that the rise in the cases of testicular cancer and the evidence that sperm counts were on the decline in the West, were real. The chemicals mimic the female hormone oestrogen or block the mate hormone and rogeri, causing female characteristics to develop in males. They have also been linked with a rise in cases of undescended testes, shrinking penises and a marked rise in female breast cancer. But most alarmingly, the researchers suspect that if these chemicals are behind such effects, major damage is likely to be 'caused to the unborn child in the womb.

The British government's reaction to the report has been somewhat disappointing. While the Environment Department has volunteered to fund research into the screening of chemicals, the government has flatly refused to ban any chemicals as a precaution. Interestingly, Smith does not seem too disturbed by the developments. A total ban could not be justified until firmer evidence was gathered, he maintains. But the environmentalists, however, are clamouring for immediate and more strident action aginst what they term as system "gender bending" pollution. "The Government should apply the precautionary principle to protect the public from it. Bland reassurances and moves towards more ' research are unacceptable, " rages Richard Dixon of the environmental group, Friends of the Earth, supported by Gwynne Lyons who is a pollution consultant to the World Wide Fund for Nature. Lyons stresses that immediate action is needed to reduce human and wildlife exposure to harmful chemicals through a crackdown on emissions to rivers, takes and seas.

The research work conducted till now indicates that this is a definite "West-oriented" malady. But experts working in the field of environmetal health hazards harbour serious doubts, and opine that the disease could be a reality in India as well. "The present trend of inclustrialisation renders the Indians extremely vulnerable to the destructive chemicals," says K R Nair, a senior medical researcher with the Department of Community Health and Medicine in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. "I have nothing against liberalisation," he stresses, "But in the recent months I have watched with alarm the projects that are being cleared at random by @he government. Most of them are manufficturing units of chemicals or cheniftal products, ranging from plastics to linoleum."

And these i according to him are proposed by M@ltinationals. "It is as if there is a deliberate attempt to shift the hazardous industries from the North to,the South," says Nair. bAr 'en this situation, Nair feels there is an urgent need to conduct sperm count studies in India too.

Rajlaxmi, a member of the Department of reproductive biology in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, who presently heads a cell examining male fertility rates in India, informs that such a study is almost complete. "We are examining studies published from the year 1930," she claims. However, she refused to comment further on the implications , of this research and even re-frained from commenting on the study conducted by Skakkebaek.

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